Tuesday, May 15, 2012
I Am Forbidden: A Novel by Anouk Markovits
Opening in 1939 Transylvania, five-year-old Josef witnesses the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard and is rescued by a Gentile maid to be raised as her own son. Five years later, Josef rescues a young girl, Mila, after her parents are killed while running to meet the Rebbe they hoped would save them. Josef helps Mila reach Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community, in whose home Mila is raised as a sister to Zalman’s daughter, Atara. As the two girls mature, Mila’s faith intensifies, while her beloved sister Atara discovers a world of books and learning that she cannot ignore. With the rise of communism in central Europe, the family moves to Paris, to the Marais, where Zalman tries to raise his children apart from the city in which they live.
When the two girls come of age, Mila marries within the faith, while Atara continues to question fundamentalist doctrine. The different choices the two sisters makes force them apart until a dangerous secret threatens to banish them from the only community they’ve ever known.
A beautifully crafted, emotionally gripping story of what happens when unwavering love, unyielding law, and centuries of tradition collide, I Am Forbidden announces the arrival of an extraordinarily gifted new voice and opens a startling window on a world long closed to most of us, until now.
This novel provides a harrowing look into the rarely glimpsed fold of the Hasidic Jewish community. It is brutally honest, with a prose that is bare and cold enough to give the novel a real sense of despair.
The author is obviously very gifted in her craft. She uses the simplest sentences to get her point across in a way that the most florid descriptions never would. At the beginning, the writing seemed chopped and too hurried, but as I accustomed myself to it, I learned to see the bare beauty of it.
The storylines, and there are a few, are all mixed together, going back and forth in time, although not enough to confuse the reader. There are a few characters to keep straight, but their personalities shine through enough to make this much easier than it would’ve been otherwise. It’s not an easy book to read, however. Mainly, because there is such a sense of lost hope, pretty much with all characters, that it gets heavy. The restrictions in this orthodox branch of the Jewish religion are astoundingly cruel and they will definitely leave an impression in the reader.
I highly recommend this book, not only as a window into this community, but also as a wonderful example of a deep, lyrical work of fiction.